Research to Prevent Cavities Garners $3.2 Million

March 19, 2001

Preventing tooth decay in completely new ways, such as identifying what makes some people's saliva an especially potent anti-cavity weapon, is the subject of a $3.2 million project at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Funding for the four-year project at the Center for Oral Biology comes from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.

The project will focus on cavity prevention in three areas. One team will analyze saliva samples collected from 4,000 children whose history of dental care will be recorded for several years, checking for compounds in saliva that make some children less likely to develop tooth decay. Dentists know that saliva is vital for preventing cavities, bringing to the teeth minerals that fill in tiny cavities and helping wash away sugar and acid. The Rochester team will measure levels of more than a dozen proteins in saliva, hoping to identify specific substances present in children who develop fewer cavities than their peers.

A second team is focusing on making vulnerable the bacteria that churn out the acids that eat through enamel. Bacteria in the mouth typically form themselves into a little community known as dental plaque, banding together and enabling them to survive in a hostile, acidic environment. Microbiologists are working on a variety of ways to either make the bacteria vulnerable to the acids they produce, or to make it impossible for the bacteria to form into plaque altogether. One approach involves making the bacteria work to exhaustion, by coming up with ways to force microbes to use all their energy in a futile effort to keep their innards free of acid. Microbiologists are also studying how bacteria constantly adapt to the changing environment of the mouth to stay alive, and how to knock out the repair enzymes that keep bacteria going even under stress.

A third team will explore how common food preservatives found in diet soda, frozen foods, juices, and many other foods appear to help prevent cavities. University researchers have shown that cavities are less likely to develop in teeth exposed to both fluoride and preservatives such as benzoates and sorbates. The researchers believe that the preservatives somehow enhance the protective action of fluoride, perhaps by making it harder for bacteria like streptococcus mutans to grow in the mouth.

William Bowen, B.D.S., Ph.D., Welcher Professor of Dentistry, leads the program. In addition to students and research associates, other faculty investigators include Gurrinder Bedi, Ph.D.; Robert Burne Jr., Ph.D.; Robert Marquis, Ph.D.; Robert Quivey Jr., Ph.D.; Anna Vacca Smith, Ph.D.; Gene Watson, D.D.S., Ph.D.

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